Ah, J K Rowling. I don’t think I was ever a fan of her work. I remember being given one of the Harry Potter books in the form of an audio cassette when I was a kid, and I remember having two Harry Potter video games in the house, but my interest in the franchise never extended beyond having played the games once and dressing as a Hogwarts wizard when I was like 6 years old or so (in my defense, all the kids in my family did it at the time). The movies based on the books were even less appealing to me for some reason, so all told I never cared much for the Harry Potter franchise or for J K Rowling as a person. And so, years later, I like many people saw the broader culture around the Harry Potter franchise as a form of cringe, and the frequent proliferation of Harry Potter references as cultural signifiers within liberal politics and many other ideologies to be even more cringe-inducing, emblematic of almost every inane moral and cultural piety in society that I despise. In a way, they’re a modern Iiberal equivalent of the kind of bourgeois social-democratic moral idealism that Walter Benjamin railed against in his 1929 essay Surrealism.
Now, however, we’re in a very peculiar cultural moment where the Harry Potter franchise is not only considered unfashionable but also an increasingly considered toxic cultural artefact, due largely to the fact that its author, J K Rowling, has for the last couple of years become prolific in using her platform to espouse transphobia. Attendant to this fact is her tendency to declare herself, or for others to declare her, a victim of that ever-nebulous “cancel culture” (which, much like “wokeness”, serves as a poor substitute for the concept of political correctness), and in this she’s managed to garner a certain measure of public sympathy despite (or in some cases because of) her views. The fact that Rowling and other transphobes such as Rosie Duffield have apparently faced death threats from what is most likely some lone nut or too has done much in the eyes of a British media already sympathetic to transphobia as their pet manufactured “taboo speech” to bolster her image as a persecuted and cancelled woman who dared only to assert “unpopular opinions” about “biological fact” (and they mean this in a very two-dimensional sense). It’s in this context that the prevailing struggle in modern “Western’ and particularly British culture is to re-evaluate the legacy of the Harry Potter franchise, or more specifically to determine the extent to which it is acceptable to still appreciate the Harry Potter books and movies despite their author’s grotesque bigotry.
Although that particular question is all too familiar to me in that it recalls the subject of black metal, one of my favourite musical genres which similarly invites challenges regarding how best to approach beloved art in association with problematic creators, this article will not explore that question. That said, though, before we approach the real subject of what I want to say, it should be noted that transphobia is not the only toxic aspect of Rowling’s creative legacy. More recently people, are becoming more aware of the fact that, despite Rowling famously declaring that Albus Dumbledore was gay, her work nonetheless has certain homophobic tendencies, such as the fact that she depicted lycanthropy as a metaphor for the AIDS virus (though of course, being a liberal, she tried to pass this off as commentary on conservative moral panic rather than vilifying gay people as “bug spreaders”). Even Dumbledore’s homosexuality is never validated within canon, and if anything it can be argued that the canon depicts his gay crush as his Achilles heel, which is all the more troublesome by the fact that Dumbledore is the only apparently confirmed gay character in Harry Potter. There’s also the fact that she depicted bankers in the form of the Grimgotts, the goblins who run the wizard bank, which is increasingly notorious due to the fact that they’re depicted as greedy, hook-nosed creatures, which is very similar to long-established anti-semitic caricatures depicting Jewish people as similarly greedy and hook-nosed in order to frame them as evil masterminds of capitalism or the banking industry. In short there’s actually a bit of a tapestry of bigotry.
In order to meaningfully oppose Rowling and her ilk, and in order to meaningfully oppose the bigotry they espouse, it is necessary to challenge the foundations of the bigotry that they espouse. In other words, the legacy of ideas that animate the bigotries that Rowling presents. And in this, I believe there is an element in the room that must be confronted: Christianity.
It’s often forgotten that the Harry Potter franchise carries with it a hefty legacy of underlying Christianity. It may seem strange given that the series is all about magic and wizards, both subjects usually proscribed in Biblical injunction, and indeed the idiot brigade that is Christian fundamentalism accused Harry Potter of being a “Satanic” influence promoting witchcraft with this injunction in mind. Some Catholics have even abjured Harry Potter by declaring it as “Gnostic in essence and practice”, with predictably no self-awareness considering that the “Gnosticism” he is referring to is literally just esoteric Christian mysticism. But Harry Potter is nonetheless a Christian fantasy, or at least a secular work that still has some codified latent Christianity within it. I’ve been meaning to explore and comment on this for some time now, ever since I heard that people were worshipping Harry Potter as Jesus and treating the books as a kind of modern sacred literature. Aside from the obvious question of “why would you want to do this?”, there’s a lot to go into and at least it’s not too late to do so.
Let’s start with one overlooked fact about J K Rowling herself: she is a Christian, and a fairly committed one at that. Given that at least half of British society is broadly irreligious, and given the ostensibly liberal politics of Rowling, you may well have assumed that J K Rowling was an atheist. But in fact she is a Christian, she considers her Christian faith to be very important to her life, and she seems to be a member of the Church of England. She has repeatedly stated that she is Christian over the years, and in fact has gone out of her way to elaborate on the Christian themes in the Harry Potter novels. That said, the way she communicates it in her interviews, it seems to manifest as a vague reference to abstract and broadly more universal moral pronouncements such as “choosing between what is right and what is easy” (conveniently lacking any definition of what is “right” or “easy”). However, there are allusions to Christianity so familiar that even Christians, or at least some of the smarter ones, can observe them for what they are.
It’s easy enough to snicker at the thought of Harry Potter being likened to Jesus Christ, and I imagine there’s fundamentalist Christians who consider that whole comparison to be blasphemy, but there are apparently several allusions that are meant to connect Harry Potter with the story of Jesus. Harry Potter dies in order to make Voldemort mortal and therefore vulnerable, only for Harry to then return to life so that Voldemort can be defeated, thus apparently saving the world. This is pretty unequivocally a parallel with the basic premise of Jesus Christ dying and then coming back to life in order to redeem mankind of its sins. The difference is that instead of going to Hell to defeat Satan before his resurrection, Harry in his post-death/pre-resurrection state meets Dumbledore, who although definitely not God has been compared to the traditional image of the Christian God, and instead of going to heaven Harry gets married and has three kids who he sends off to Hogwarts. But regardless of the differences, the point of the Harry Potter story is that it culminates in a salvific conflict between “Good”, as represented by a dying-and-rising Harry and his friends, and “Evil”, as represented by Voldemort and his allies. Thus the central premise, the central conflict, of the Harry Potter books and films is a latent from of what is basically the Christian message.
That’s one of the more basic and familiar forms of Latent Christianity in Harry Potter, certainly among the most discussed. But what about the relationship to bigotry?
The easiest place to start would actually be the anti-semitism, which Rowling expresses in her depiction of the Gringott bankers. Despite the declaration of the New Testament that there is neither Jew nor Greek in the eyes of God, the founding fathers of the Christian church were vicious anti-semites who either invented or at least codified the very same canards against Jews that would re-emerge in both medieval and modern anti-semitism. St. Paul appeared to refer to Jews, or rather “they of the circumcision”, as “unruly and vain talkers and deceivers” who subvert entire households and teach false or forbidden teachings in pursuit of money (Titus 1:10-11). Keep that last part about money in mind for certain modern caricatures about the greed attributed to Jewish people by anti-semitic bigots. St. Ambrose praised the burning of a synagogue by a mob of Christians and took responsibility for it on the grounds that “there should no longer be any place where Christ is denied”. St. Jerome referred to Jews as “congenital liars”, accused them of tempting Christians into heresy, and believed they should be punished until they confess, which thus serves as a grim antecedent to the Inquisition that would come centuries later. John Chrysostom, who was an influential and powerful church ideologue, wrote an entire tract called Adversus Judaeos (literally “Against the Jews”), in which he accused Jewish people of murdering Jesus, described synagogues as brothels and criminal assemblies among other slanderous charges, claimed that Jewish priesthood was offered, bought, and sold for money, and advocated for the slaughter of Jews on the grounds that he believed them to have demons inside their souls and synagogues. Tertullian, in his argument against Marcion, declared that the Jews were an inferior people in order to oppose the idea that the God of the Old Testament was too harsh, essentially saying God’s oppressive cruelty is the fault of the Jews for disobeying or not believing in God rather than the fault of God – after all, the Christian God has to remain blameless of evil, or else the whole premise of Christianity falls apart.
As a side-note, it is humorous to account for the fact that some scholars comment that early Christian anti-semitism emerged in the context of a harsh period for the church, a time where the church was fighting for its survival at a time where Christianity had not yet become the dominant religion and was still persecuted by the Roman state. The fact that anti-semitic rhetoric continued to be trafficked in the Christian world for centuries after Christianity became the state religion of Rome, and the fact that Christians were actually persecuted less frequently in Rome than later Christians would have you believe, would all put a damper on that. But more importantly, if we are to take as fact that the church fathers employed anti-semitic rhetoric to survive, then this only means that Christianity established itself as a religion of love, mercy, forgiveness, and the equality of all peoples in the eyes of God only to immediately discard such concerns when the task of establishing the church proved unforgiving. That Christianity inverted its own supposed teachings of mercy, forgiveness, and love so quickly in its life is if anything among the strongest proofs that Christianity was always a fraudulent religion, and that the Western world for well over a thousand years was foolish to have believed in it.
To return to the central subject as it relates to the Gringotts in Rowling’s books, Christian anti-semitism is at the root of traditional stereotypes about Jews as being greedy and unscrupulous money-lenders. The sinful reputation of money-lending is often traced to Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple, but it also has older roots in Old Testament prohibitions against usury (Exodus 22:25) and charging interest except for foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:19-20). It’s important to remember at this point that Christian attitudes to the rich depended on whether or not you used your wealth “righteously” or “sinfully”. There were the rich who were “wicked and merciless”, who used their wealth in an evil way not aligned with God’s will, and there were the rich who were “merciful and loving”, who used their wealth in a righteous way aligned with God’s will. If we take into account the Christian view on money-lending and the vituperatives directed against Jews, it probably doesn’t take much guesswork to figure out who the “wicked and merciless” rich might consist of in the eyes of the early Christians. Sometimes the anti-semitic tirades of early Christians, and later medieval Christian ideologues such as Martin Luther, have been compared to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, and in this light it is worth remembering that Nazi economics was predicated on a division between “schaffendes kapital”, meaning “productive” or “creative” capital, and “raffendes kapital”, meaning “predatory” or “parasitic” capital. “Productive”/”creative” capital referred to the national capital that was held to be the source of economic utility and technological advancement, while “predatory”/”parasitic” capital referred to finance capital, stock trading, and banking, all of which were directly attributed to Jews by the Nazis. It’s easy to connect ideas like this back to the distinction between the “good” rich and the “evil” rich, and how the implications of the latter probably would’ve meant Jewish people vilified as evil money-lenders.
Speaking of Nazism, the Harry Potter universe contains something called the Werewolf Register, created by Newt Scamander in 1947 as a register of all werewolves in Britain. Those who were werewolves were apparently required to register, and it is not clear what happens to those who did not register. Keep in mind at this point that werewolves are intended to be coded representations of gay people who contracted AIDs, and that Newt Scamander is also the protagonist of the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, which is part of the Harry Potter series. Thus, in Rowling’s universe, gay people are represented as werewolves who need to have a Nazi-esque registration system account for them because of their predatory nature. But we’ll come to the significance of that soon enough.
Now let’s address the big elephant in the room, Rowling’s transphobia. Rowling’s transphobia can be summarized via the following precepts: she rejects the idea trans people are real on the grounds that this supposedly means “sex isn’t real”, which simply means that she believes in an essentialist understanding of binary biological sex as the sole determinant of your gender identity, she believes that trans people are conspiring to force lesbians to date them and thus, in her view, date men (a talking point that was more recently platformed in an entirely sympathetic light by the BBC), she compares trans people to incels and Donald Trump, she believes that trans women are men who view womanhood as a costume, she claims that trans people regularly commit acts of violence against cis women, and she believes that allowing trans women to use the women’s bathrooms will result in a tidal wave of male sexual harassment and assault against women.
These are all obviously bigoted beliefs, and they fall under a family of ideas referred to as trans-exclusionary radical feminism, which its adherents prefer to call “gender-critical feminism”. You might be wondering how much of this has to do with Christianity beyond just the fact that a lot of conservative Christians are also transphobes. The Bible apparently says nothing about trans people, and the only verse I’ve seen that even comes close is an admonition against people who cross-dress (Deuteronomy 22:5), so some might think there’s nothing transphobic about Christianity. But, there’s a problem. In his City of God, Augustine condemns the rites observed in dedication to the Great Mother, most likely referring to the goddess Cybele, who he asserted surpassed the other gods in “crime”. He condemned the sacred rite of Cybele for its “cruel custom”, or rather the “consecration of mutilated men”, by which he seems to be referring to the galli, who were the priesthood of Cybele. The galli were priests who worshipped Cybele, led public festivals in her honour, and, to complete their initiation into the cult of Cybele, cut off their male genitalia so as to re-enact the mythical castration of Attis and unite with the goddess, and from then on they spent the rest of their lives dressing, presenting, and likely identifying as women. It’s these priests that Augustine referred to as “wretched” or “miserable men”, who he claims partake in a deception via rites he deems more abominable than any other pagan custom observed in Rome. If we note that the galli might well have been trans according to scholars, then the “deception” Augstine refers to may refer not simply to the “deception” of the goddess but also to their female identity being a “deception”; in other words, Augustine believed that the galli priests were men who meant to deceive society into thinking they were women. The standard “gender-critical” or transphobic argument about trans women is exactly the same, that trans women are actually men trying to deceive people into thinking that they’re women.
As is the case with modern transphobia, Augustine’s transphobia intersects with homophobia through his reference to the priests of the Great Mother as “effeminates”. There can be no doubt that he is referring to them as “effeminates” because of their presentation as women and the radical abjuration of their physical masculinity through the act of ritual castration. But Augustine’s denunciation of the galli as effiminate can be seen to echo another older Roman trope: in the eyes of Roman society, men who lost their physical manhood in some way were no longer seen as men. Homosexuality was sometimes denounced in Roman society, and often in the context of attacks made by Roman politicians against their political rivals. From the standpoint of Roman norms of masculinity, being a man meant penetrating people with your penis and having the ability to do so. To be a man and receive penetration from another man was, in effect, to be seen as a woman instead of a man. This idea of masculinity in its relation to homosexuality continued into the medieval Christian era of Europe, which also seemed to have much more lenient standards for lesbian sex than male homosexual sex. John Chrysostom viciously condemned homosexuality as “vile” and an “insult to nature”, and argued that men who received sexual penetration from men lost their manhood and became women. Roman and later Christian attitudes to the galli are thus linked to Roman homophobia in that both the galli and gay men are condemned or at least ostracised for being men who have abandoned or desecrated their manhood.
This in my opinion leads into another modern issue with Christianity and homosexuality that emerges from progressive attempts to claim that homophobia is not latent to Christianity. One argument I’ve seen from some Christians is that certain Bible verses that are invoked to justify bigoted attitudes towards homosexuals are not meant to reference homosexuality but instead reference either effeminacy or a more general weakness of character (which, keep in mind, seem to have been linked together in patriarchal Greek and Roman society). By modern standards, this would appear to exonerate the Bible from charges of homophobia. The problem, however, is that in the ancient context, particularly the Roman one, effeminacy and homosexuality are linked, and gay men are socially condemned because, in their eyes, being a man and being penetrated by another man meant the loss of manhood, and with it Roman notions of pride and honour that were supposed to be attendant to the traditional male. This is an idea that is still carried forth in traditional Christian denunications of homosexuality. So, in my view, the Bible is hardly exonerated and remains an anti-LGBT text.
Before anyone signs off thinking that Christian homophobia has nothing to do with the Harry Potter series whatsoever, let’s first return to the problem of the AIDs werewolves from earlier. Much of the stigma surrounding AIDs and HIV stems from the idea that these were “gay diseases”, diseases that you supposedly only got if you participated in homosexual sex, and this also fed into the idea that gay people were out to prick you and get you infected with AIDS and HIV, which comes from the idea of homosexuality as being predatory, which is itself had been a talking point for decades. The Christian movement had long held similar prejudices about homosexuality. John Chrysostom not only described homosexuality as vile and unnatural, but he also liked to frame homosexual sex as inherently abusive, and describing it as a violent sedition incited by the Devil or as the manifestation of God’s wrath against idol worship, and the abuse of two people of the same sex by each other. This itself seems to be a commentary extrapolated from Paul’s own condemnation of homosexuality. Paul condemned women for “changing natural sexual relations for unnatural ones”, and men for “abandoning natural relations with women” in favour of “lust for one another” (Romans 1:26-27). The fact that some modern scholars might interpret this as a condemnation not of homosexuality but of male rape and child abuse, besides requiring us to ignore plain text on the matter of “rejecting relations with women for lust with one another”, invites only the supposition that the Christian view of homosexuality was that it was a kind of violence for those who participated in it.
And so we come back to Dumbledore, who for a while was the only confirmed gay character in the Harry Potter series according to its author. Dumbledore may not be depicted as effeminate, but the only homosexual relationship he is shown is one in which he is victimized. Dumbledore was in love with a man named Gellert Grindelwald, who never really reciprocated his feelings and instead took advantage of them, which Dumbledore eventually realized and became heartbroken over it. This would mean that the (for a time) only gay character in the series is a man who had been effectively shamed and weakened by his pursuit of a gay relationship, and as a result he took on a life of celibacy. Although there’s definitely no sex involved, Grindelwald is clearly the dominant component of this relationship, rendering Dumbledore entirely submissive to his manipulations, and the resulting damage done to Dumbledore in the context of the only gay relationship hinted at in relation to at least the original books weaves a tapestry more or less in conformity to Roman ideas about homosexual relationships which then informed Christian homophobia. Thus, this is a relationship which displays Latent Christian ideas about homosexuality, and it serves to cast aspersion on homosexuality writ large.
There’s another Latent Christian prejudice in the fact Dumbledore, the only confirmed gay character, is officially celibate. While many might have congratulated themselves over the supposedly emancipatory or “progressive” depiction of Dumbledore as a gay man, in reality his sexuality is never validated in the series. I guess Rowling was of the presumption that homosexuality cannot be validated in fictional representation without it taking the form of overt sexualization. Though, of course, this celibacy follows his break-up with Grindelwald. In either case the celibacy establishes a divide between the “good” homosexual who chooses not to act on his desires for other men versus the “bad” homosexual who pursues a gay relationship. Grindelwald is the “bad” homosexual who explores a gay relationship with another man, but in a way that is depicted as cruel and manipulative, leading to the despair of his ex-lover Dumbledore. Dumbledore thus becomes the “good” homosexual, who abstains from such pursuits and devotes himself to a different pursuit, namely the study of wizardry and ensuring that good prevails over evil.
The universe of Harry Potter is a universe where the sole concern is the triumph of the good wizards against the evil wizards, which in the seven original books culminates in the death and resurrection of Harry Potter as Jesus Christ. This also means that the problems of the system that everyone lives in, which I have to stress is a pretty rigidly classist system, are never really addressed because the order of things is legitimate in the same sense that wealth is legitimate in Christianity: as long as it follows “good” instead of “evil”. Villains in this setting include a pale Satan expy, werewolves that are actually coded gay people with AIDs, and a gay man who breaks Dumbledore’s heart, among others. There’s a lot of Latent Christian context for the Harry Potter series and, by extention, much of Rowling’s views as well as the bigotries that they involve. As people re-examine the Harry Potter franchise and its negative legacy, my advice is for people to sincerely challenge Christianity, rather than seek a sanitized version of it.